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Praying Together While Apart: Charlotte Muslims Find New Ways To Celebrate Ramadan

Islamic Center of Charlotte's Imam Muhammad Khan and a volunteer hand out meals to a family
Michael Falero
Islamic Center of Charlotte's Imam Muhammad Khan and a volunteer hand out meals to a family

The Muslim holy month of Ramadan began last week and continues through May 23. But stay-at-home orders and social distancing are causing Muslims in Charlotte to change how they observe their religion’s most important month. They’re finding new ways to connect, worship, and give back to their community.

From sun up to sun down during Ramadan, observant Muslims don’t eat or drink anything. At the end of the day, they usually gather at their mosque for a call to prayer. Then, they have a large community meal. Families can bring food to the mosque to share, or visit the homes of relatives and eat with them.

Obviously, that’s not happening this year because of coronavirus. Muslims in Charlotte can’t gather and share meals together like they once did. But they’re finding ways to adapt.

Imam Muhammad Khan was outside the Islamic Center of Charlotte, east of uptown, earlier this week.  Just before sundown, he and some volunteers were giving out hot meals -- drive-thru style -- to families that would usually come to the mosque to share in the community meal.

"We’re out here just distributing boxes, just waiting for the cars to come and we’ll hand it out," Khan said. "Before, we’d be waiting here ready to dish it out. Now we’re handing it out in disposable boxes. It’s the irony of this whole pandemic, but it is the reality."


Cars lined up for meals before the beginning of the Islamic Center of Charlotte's Ramadan drive-thru service, April 29 2020.
Credit Islamic Center of Charlotte
Cars lined up for meals before the beginning of the Islamic Center of Charlotte's Ramadan drive-thru service on Thursday.

Normally, there would be 300-plus people inside the mosque at a time like this, praying and eating together. Most drivers who came by were picking up several meals to take home to their families. The mosque also has a delivery service for those who don’t have cars.

Fadi Deeb manages events and volunteer programs at the mosque. He said the staff plans for Ramadan three months in advance. It’s been a learning experience to adapt to so much change so quickly when the mosque is usually at its busiest.

"It is difficult, it is really difficult," Deeb said. "This is our first experience going through this, and it’s just a really difficult situation. For the past 20 years we’ve been doing the same thing and the same activities almost every single night of Ramadan."

Because of stay-at-home orders, no more than 10 people could pray in the mosque at one time. And social distancing guidelines make Friday prayers at the mosque -- the most important time for Muslims to pray during Ramadan -- nearly impossible, said Imam John Ederer.


Imam Muhammad Khan stands inside the entrance of the Islamic Center of Charlotte, closed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Credit Michael Falero / WFAE
Imam Muhammad Khan stands inside the entrance of the Islamic Center of Charlotte, closed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

"We stand in very straight rows, shoulder-to-shoulder, and then there’s a row in front of another row, where we’re literally within four feet of each other there," Ederer said.

Ederer leads the Muslim Community Center in northeast Charlotte. His mosque closed down in-person prayer services on March 15, before stay-at-home orders went into effect. Instead, he’s switched to giving daily sermons and Quran recitations on YouTube.

“So today, let’s start talking about the concept of Islam and embracing Islam, how the Prophet [uses Arabic honorific phrase] felt about that …,” Ederer began in a recent online sermon.

Ederer said these online sermons help bridge the gap to community gatherings, but they aren’t the same as praying in person. He said the Quran places more weight on Muslims praying in groups during Ramadan. Ederer told his congregants when they pray at home, to treat the experience like they’re at the mosque.

"So we’re just saying that’s now at your home, you’re going to do that," he said. "And make sure that everyone’s there praying together, sit in a circle, read some Quran together. And then that way, you have your own little mosque at home."

His organization is providing other online programming too, like social hangouts on Zoom for young people to talk about their faith and see each other.

Ederer also said the coronavirus pandemic is posing a significant financial challenge to many mosques. He says his mosque, for example, receives 70% of its budget through donations during Ramadan. Ederer’s planning to start an online fundraiser on May 1, to run through the rest of the holiday.

"I think we’ll definitely reach our goal this year," Ederer said. "It may take some creative methods of personal outreach and things like that, considering that they’re not all in the mosque. But we definitely expect to reach our goal."

People may feel far apart from one another during this Ramadan, said Imam Muhammad Khan at the Islamic Center of Charlotte. But he said the Quran provides an answer for that.

“So God commands us to fast, and ironically, at the end of that page, God tells us ...‘If they ask about me, tell them I am close; if they ask for me, I am here willing to give to them,’" Khan said. "So this is the message we try to deliver to our congregation."

The celebration at the end of Ramadan, called Eid al-Fitr, begins at sundown on May 23. Even if North Carolina begins to reopen after May 8, Imam Khan doesn’t know if his mosque will be allowed to have many people inside. For now, he isn’t planning to do a big celebration for the holiday. He expects Muslim families will have a special meal at home, with candy for the kids, to recreate some of the joy the end of Ramadan usually brings.

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Michael Falero is a radio reporter, currently covering voting and the 2020 election. He previously covered environment and energy for WFAE. Before joining WFAE in 2019, Michael worked as a producer for a number of local news podcasts based in Charlotte and Boston. He's a graduate of the Transom Story Workshop intensive on Cape Cod and UNC Chapel Hill.